Tinsel, terror and toenails



Indulging your child in a little craziness may bring temporary embarrassment—but bonds thus formed with kids make the cringe moment a great story to share later on. ©Thinkstock

In many ways, that particular Christmas was typical. We had a tinsel-trimmed tree, an overabundance of Christmas cookies and a pile of presents for the kids. But that year, as we gathered with loved ones around our table, we also had a funny story to share.

On Christmas Eve morning, thanks to the wood-burning stove in the basement, our house felt cozy and warm. My husband, Jory, and I were tidying up in preparation for our guests. He vacuumed the basement and I made the beds, while Leah and Chloe, our 4-year-old twins, ran naked around the living room, giggling and wiggling to “Jingle Bell Rock.”

When I came out of the bedroom, I saw smoke in the kitchen. That’s strange, I thought. Is something burning? But I hadn’t even turned on the oven yet. Still more curious than alarmed, I called down to Jory. At the same time, I opened the service door to the garage. And there it was: a room full of hazy, white smoke.

“Jory, there’s a fire!” I screamed.

He came pounding up the stairs. “What do we do?”

I panicked. The films I’d seen in high school health class came back to me. “I’ll call 911.”

My voice shook as I gave our address to the dispatcher. Immediately after hanging up, I ran to the bedroom and pulled open a drawer. The girls should at least be wearing underpants before we left the house! Jory worked on Leah while I thrust Chloe’s legs into the garment’s openings. Then I wrapped her, mummy style, in a comforter I’d wrenched off the bed. As I slung her over my shoulder, Jory snatched Leah up. “But what about our presents?” she cried.

We left the girls at a neighbor’s house and returned, full of adrenaline, to pace the sidewalk outside the house. With the garage door open to the driveway now, the smoke seemed to have cleared, and we saw no flames. Within minutes the sheriff pulled up in a squad car, and he and Jory went into the garage to find the source of the fire. Soon after, three fire engines clanged up the hill, sirens blaring, and fifteen or so firefighters jumped out in full dress—fireproof jackets, suspenders, pants, boots and hats. After speaking with the sheriff, they piled into the house. But they couldn’t find the fire.

 I panicked. The films I’d seen in high school health class came back to me. “I’ll call 911.”

The commotion drew our neighbors outside. I saw friends across the street and ran over to fill them in on the situation. Other neighbors waved and asked if we needed help. Finally, I returned to my position in front of the garage. As I chatted with the sheriff—still no fire—I glimpsed the vacuum canister on the back wall of the garage, the repository for our whole-house vacuum system.

“Did you check that?” I asked the sheriff, pointing at the canister. “My husband was vacuuming around the time I noticed the smoke.”

Jory mounted a ladder and lifted the lid. As smoke drifted out, he started calling himself all kinds of names. Apparently, while vacuuming, he had sucked some live ashes from the stove hearth and they’d started smoldering. That was the extent of our “fire.”

The firefighters were nice about it. They helped Jory remove the canister and dump its contents in the snow by the curb. After running a high-powered fan to blow the smoke out of the house, they began packing up. As they waited for the final all-clear, Jory and I stood in the entryway with several of them.

These were big, strong country guys—men who looked like they’d be at home chopping down a tree or downing a beer in a single gulp. We soon ran out of small talk, and, as people do when they’re standing in a circle with nothing to say, I looked at the floor. I studied the firemen’s heavy boots, my beat-up shoes and a small stain in the carpet. Then I noticed something else: my husband’s toenails. They were bright pink.

A few days earlier, Chloe had received a bottle of strawberry-scented polish in the preschool gift exchange. After she painted her own toes with it, her good-natured daddy had let her paint his, too.

Christmas Eve night. After opening our presents with the family, we nibbled more cookies and laughed again over those toenails. And I’ll bet as our firefighter friends gathered around their own Christmas tables, they had a funny story to share, too!

SARA MATSON is a freelance writer from Minnesota.


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